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The plague of people not paying their fares on the Toronto Transit Commission is a favourite topic of argument in Canada’s largest city. Data suggest a lot of people are doing it; anecdotal evidence – your faithful correspondent Junius is a daily strap-hanger – suggests the problem is widespread.

There are, broadly speaking, two ways to stop people from turnstile-jumping.

You can make it harder to engage in the transit equivalent of shoplifting by measures such as hiring more fare inspectors, as the TTC is doing. Or you can get rid of the fare boxes, the fare inspectors and the fares – and make transit free.

The local public library is free. Schools are free. You don’t have to pay to use the swing set at the park. In Canada, a visit to the doctor or hospital is free. And, much to this page’s chagrin, most roads are still free.

So why isn’t public transit free?

After all, we want more people on transit and fewer in cars in Canada’s big cities, for reasons of congestion, pollution and basic urban livability.

Public transit in Canada is already significantly subsidized. Most transit riders pay less than half the cost of their journey and sometimes much less. The TTC is a rare exception. It’s the least subsidized transit system in North America, with fare box revenue covering more than 60 per cent of total costs.

Some jurisdictions are testing zero-fare transit. Kansas City, Miss., is making the move this year. Little Olympia, Wash., is doing the same. Tiny, wealthy Luxembourg recently made all transit free. The Estonian capital of Tallinn is often cited by zero-fare advocates. Ridership there has ticked up with the end of fares, as driving in the city centre has fallen.

Basic economics says that when you lower the cost of something, demand for it should rise. But what most zero-fare cities have in common is transit systems that are small and little used. Even before getting rid of fares, their few riders were heavily subsidized. Kansas City has a minuscule public transit system – barely 1 per cent of the TTC’s ridership – which is why it expects the cost of going fare-free to be only US$6-million a year.

In North America, there are few big-city historical examples to study. Denver tried partially free transit in the late 1970s. Austin did an experiment in 1990. The results were mixed. Ridership did rise, but zero-fare transit did not draw many people from their cars.

Most U.S. cities have limited public transit options; the thing they are making free isn’t very useful, or usable, for most people. The TTC, in contrast, carries more passengers than any American transit system other than New York’s. The volume and cost of public transit in Montreal and Vancouver is not far behind.

The TTC’s operating budget is $2.1-billion, of which $1.3-billion comes from fares. If Toronto property taxes were to cover the TTC fare box, civic tax revenue would need to jump by almost 20 per cent. TransLink, the regional transit operator in Vancouver, has a budget of $2.1-billion, about a third of which comes from the fare box.

Free rides would be a boon for riders’ pocketbooks. It would also draw more riders. But extra riders would strain transit systems physically and financially, and the TTC is already underfunded and overcrowded. Making the system free would not add more transit.

Research suggests the best way to attract passengers to public transit is to have more and better public transit. It’s why, even with relatively high fares, Toronto has so many more transit riders than Kansas City. A bus that runs reliably every 15 minutes, rather than once an hour, makes a huge difference in ridership. Imagine what a few more subway lines in Toronto could do. Imagine what hundreds more buses and streetcars could do.

Public transit in Canada needs more funding, not less. Blowing a hole in budgets by eliminating fares isn’t wise, unless there is a plan to find a lot of new money elsewhere.

There are options, including road tolls. New York aims to raise US$1-billion a year from congestion pricing to fund subways. Vancouver last month said it is working toward congestion pricing in the city’s downtown.

Absent major new taxpayer funds, making public transit free isn’t the answer. Making public transit better, and creating more of it, is. We’ll have more on this, next week.